Last-minute expansion of COVID-19 and flu jabs threatens 'severe problems' for GPs

The late decision to offer autumn COVID-19 booster and flu jabs to all over-50s will pile unfair pressure on GP practices, forcing them to re-think vaccine clinic plans at the last minute, the BMA has warned.

covid vaccine doses
(Photo: Morsa Images/Getty Images)

The government has backed Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice for flu and COVID-19 booster campaigns this autumn to expand to over-50s and at-risk patients from the age of five - widening the scope of its advice from interim plans published in May.

More than 26m patients are likely to be eligible for COVID-19 booster jabs this autumn under the expanded rollout - with a dose set to be offered to all patients in JCVI cohorts 1-9 who received their previous dose at least three months earlier.

But GPs say the last-minute announcement, which came a day after the window closed for GP practices to sign up for the next phase of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, threatens to cause 'severe problems' for already struggling practices.

GP pressure

BMA GPC clinical and prescribing policy lead Dr Preeti Shukla said practices could be forced to rearrange planned clinics, and warned that a lack of centrally-procured vaccine supply could leave primary care struggling to cope.

She said: 'Both COVID-19 boosters and flu vaccines are vital public health measures and increasing the number of people they are offered to can help relieve winter pressures on the NHS at a highly stressed time for the service.

'However, we have serious concerns that the lack of organisation with which this announcement has been made is going to cause severe problems for practices.'

She warned that the decision to expand the flu vaccination campaign 'months after the annual flu letter went out to providers in March' would cause significant problems for GP practices heading into winter.

Vaccine supply

Dr Shukla said: 'Many practices will already have their flu programmes for the 2022/23 season planned out and will need to reassess and potentially reorganise their vaccine supplies at a late stage to ensure that patients who need a vaccine can access one. That is putting unfair pressure on already dangerously overstretched GP practices.

'We would certainly have expected DHSC to have procured and supplied additional vaccines centrally, as in previous years when additional age cohorts were added to the flu vaccine programme late in the day. It’s especially disappointing that instead the burden and responsibility is being passed on to practices. The recent far-too-short signup window for the COVID-19 vaccination enhanced service will also have practices feeling unfairly pressured.

'We urge DHSC to ensure clarity of vaccine supply lines as soon as possible to enable practices to get on with making the necessary arrangements. It will also take a huge effort from commissioners at all levels of NHS England and integrated care systems to ensure that there is support for practices in both sourcing extra vaccines and in managing any potential fluctuations in vaccine supply that result from this.'

Dr Shukla warned that shortages of vaccine supply could exacerbate health inequalities becase 'recipients often become those quickest to book their jabs rather than those most in need'.

She added: 'This slow decision-making from the top will only cause avoidable stress for GPs. We need timely, clear information so that we can put in the orders for vaccines with confidence and get on with caring for our patients.'

A DHSC spokesperson said: 'We have taken the decision to widen the eligibility for the flu vaccine to help reduce the number of people getting seriously ill and ease pressures on the NHS, particularly during the busy winter period.

'Over the last two seasons we have had the most successful flu vaccination programme ever, exceeding the World Health Organization’s target of 75% for those aged 65 years and over and achieving higher uptake in most other cohorts compared to previous years.'

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